Moving faster than expected, the Kremlin has intensified its drive against sensitive Baltic nationalism by putting on trial two well-known dissidents in the Republic of Estonia.
The trials, set to open Jan. 5 in the Estonian capital of Tallinn, continue a four-year assault by Soviet authorities on all kinds of dissent in this country -- an assault that has resulted in the arrest, trial, jailing, internal exile, or forced emigration of more than 450 dissidents of all kinds, whether advocating human rights or nationalism or religion.
The crackdown represents the Kremlin's answer to the hopes raised by the Helsinki Final Act of August 1975. The act provided a platform for dissident activity. Today, dissidence continues, but both individual dissidents and their spokesmen have been dealt heavy blows.
On trial now are biologist and language teacher Mart Niklus, who capped two decades of dissident protest by signing a "Baltic appeal" for independence from Moscow in August 1979, and scientist Juri Kukk, who was a member of the Communist Party for 12 years but resigned after comparing Soviet life with conditions in France, where he spent a year in the mid-1970s.
Mr. Niklus's parents (he is unmarried), Mr. Kukk's wife, and others in Tallinn and the university city of Tartu, where both men live, had expected trials to come in about a month from now.
They are surprised at the speed with which they are being held.The two men are being tried together, this newspaper has been told, but on different charges. Both are weak from prolonged hunger strikes.
Mr. Niklus faces up to 10 years in camps under Article 68 of the Estonian penal code, which prohibits spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. He was arrested March 19, 1980, in Tartu, after being fired from a job teaching English, French, and German at the Evening School of Foreign Languages there.
Mr. Kukk, arrested last March 13 in Tartu under Article 194, Section 1, of the code, faces three years in camps for spreading "prefabricated lies." He and his wife, Silvi, have a son aged 12 and a daughter aged 8.
Sources say verdicts of guilty are inevitable.
Niklus has been fighting the authorities since he graduated from the university of Tartu in 1957. The following year he sent abroad 15 photographs of Estonian slums, and was sentenced to 10 years in camps. He was released after eight.
In 1976 he tore up his Soviet passport after more harassment and was arrested again. He started a hunger strike and was mysteriously released after 56 days.
Harassment began again after he and 44 other Baltic dissidents signed the "Baltic appeal" in August 1979, the 40th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact that opened the way for Soviet troops to march into Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia.
Baltic independence from Moscow is simply not possible in the foreseeable future, but yearning for it smolders on, especially in Estonia and Lithuania.Signers of the "appeal" have been systematically harassed: Mr. Niklus lost his job, two others were also fired, and others questioned.
The authorities were also angry at Niklus and Kukk for releasing to this newspaper in January 1980 an open letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim condemning the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The two men also asked the International Olympic Committee to move the 1980 Moscow Olympics to another country.
Several hundred students staged a public demonstration on Christmas Eve 1979 in Tartu, singing patriotic songs. In October 1980, encouraged by strikes in neighboring Gdansk in Poland in August, about 1,000 Estonian workers in a tractor factory in Tartu struck for two days.
Also in October, 2,000 students demonstrated in Tallinn, waving the Estonian national flag (now banned) and calling for Soviet troops to leave Estonia. The students were upset, in part, at official refusal to allow a local pop group, Propeller, to sing at half time at a soccer match because of a dispute over some of the lyrics.
After several more demonstrations, Estonian parents were lectured in schools to discipline their children properly.
Mr. Kukk was first arrested in late January 1980 after talking to this correspondent in a car on Moscow's main ring road. He was held for three days and escorted by police back to Tartu.
A mild-mannered, gentle chemist, he told me he was astonished at the official campaign against him after he resigned from the Communist Party in 1978.
"I thought I could just concentrate on my work at Tartu university," he said before his arrest. "Instead, my wife was told I would have to undergo psychiatric treatment. I lost my job.I was detained in Moscow -- and I really began to see how the KGB operates. I really hadn't known anything about the KGB before. Now I do."
Since his arrest, Kukk has been in psychiatric institutions in Tallinn and Moscow, but sources say doctors were unable to prove he was mentally disturbed.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin campaign against other dissidents in the Soviet Union has continued recently, with several trials and jail sentences.